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FLESH AND BLOOD

Chapter One

Paradise City, New Florida 2067

Tatiana needed to die. The thought pushed Chrysabelle on until her shoulders burned and her arms shook. Sweat drenched her thin white T-shirt and dampened her hair, but no matter how many times she pounded her fists into the heavy bag, no matter how hard she punished her body, nothing changed. Her mother was still dead. Tatiana was still alive. And Chrysabelle still owed Mal for the promise she’d made to him.

Over and over, she struck the bag, but the memory of her mother dying in her arms still haunted her. She hit harder, and her conscience punched back, heavy with the guilt of her unpaid debt.

Mal had helped her when she needed him. And she’d done nothing to uphold her end of the deal. She’d barely spoken to him in the two weeks since they’d returned from Corvinestri and most of those words had been on the plane ride home. Her fist slammed the bag. Wasn’t his fault Maris was dead. It was Tatiana’s.

The comarré life taught that revenge served no purpose. Chrysabelle was starting to think otherwise.

She walloped the bag again, then spun and landed a kick with a loud, angry grunt. She dropped her hands and stared at the bag, not seeing it. Just the mess she still needed to deal with.

She walked away from the bag, pushing hair off her face with her taped hands. She should be downstairs, reading through the journals Maris had left behind, trying to find some vampire weakness she could exploit to Tatiana’s detriment. Instead, she was hiding out in the gym. No, not hiding out. Training. For when she next met the vampiress who’d killed her mother. And with the covenant between humans and other-naturals gone, being fight-ready was going to matter.

Just like Mal thought finding a way to remove his curse mattered. Which it did. She approached the bag again and punched her fist into it. Most comarré wouldn’t dream of creating such tension between them and their patron. Not that most comarré had a cursed vampire for a patron. If Mal even was her patron anymore. She sighed. Her life was an unqualified mess.

‘Argh!’ She whirled and kicked the bag, flinging sweat. Velimai, her mother’s former assistant and now hers, stood in the doorway, watching.

Your mother loved beating up that bag, Velimai signed, her face wistful. Wyspers were mute, except for an ear-piercing scream capable of killing vampires.

‘It helps.’ Chrysabelle fought a wave of sadness to smile at the wysper fae. They both missed Maris. Her presence filled the house.

Velimai nodded back, her fingers moving. Ready for dinner?

‘Steak?’ Chrysabelle asked hopefully. With no patron and no bite, steak seemed to keep her strength up and maintain her superhuman senses better than all the other foods she’d tried. No wonder it was served so often at most comarré houses.

What else? Velimai signed, smiling.

So long as Velimai didn’t sign too fast, Chrysabelle could understand most of what she said. ‘I’ll grab a shower and be down in five.’ She started ripping the tape off her hands with her teeth.

Take ten, Velimai signed as she left. The hot shower felt good, but alone in the steam, Chrysabelle had too much time to think.

She’d sent Mal blood, not just because it was the proper thing to do for one’s patron – however suspect his hold on her blood rights might be – but because she had to drain it from her system anyway. According to Doc, Mal’s sidekick of sorts, her efforts were futile. Mal had left the blood untouched in the galley refrigerator of the abandoned freighter he called home. Maybe he thought he’d have to kiss her again if he consumed it. She grimaced at that memory and added more cold water to the spray falling over her. No, neither of them wanted to go there again. What he was doing for blood, she had no idea. She wanted to pretend she didn’t care, but that would be a lie. Caring about her patron was ingrained in her makeup. One hundred fifteen years of comarré indoctrination was a tough thing to ignore. The struggle between who she wanted to be and who she had been played out even in daily decisions. How many years would it be before she thought of herself not as a comarré but simply as a woman?

She rinsed the soap from her body, letting the water beat against her skin. Her thoughts returned to Mal. Did he feel like she’d betrayed him? She hoped not, hoped he realized she was just waiting for the time to be right. Going back to Corvinestri could be very dangerous for both of them. Surely he understood that.

She couldn’t imagine he was in any rush to face Tatiana again. Not after finding out she was the one responsible for his curse. He probably wanted to kill her as badly as Chrysabelle did.

What must it feel like to have the person you’d married turn on you that way? It was bad enough the vampiress had killed Maris and destroyed the covenant, but for Mal to find out the woman who had been his mortal wife was the one responsible for his years of imprisonment and his curse . . .

Maybe Chrysabelle wasn’t the only one whose life was a mess.

She cranked the water off, grabbed a towel, and dried herself before wrapping her hair up. She threw on a robe and opened the door. The rich smell of steak made her stomach growl. She headed downstairs, ready to dig in.

After dinner, she settled on the couch with one of Maris’s journals, but her mind kept returning to Mal. She needed a distraction.

‘Screen on.’ The wall across from her flickered to life, and the late-evening news projected into the room with holographic precision.

‘ . . . an ex-soldier in Little Havana who preaches outside the abandoned Catholic church. His message? Vampires need to be cleansed.’ The anchorman smiled like he didn’t expect his viewers to believe in vampires either. Idiot. Newsreel of the ex-soldier flashed on the screen and Chrysabelle peered closer. There was something familiar about his shaved head and the glint of his dog tags, but she couldn’t place them. What she did know was that the ex-soldier wasn’t human. He was fringe, a less-powerful class of vampire compared to the nobles but vampire nonetheless. Couldn’t the anchorman tell? Or had he, like a good portion of his audience, chosen not to believe?

‘A woman at a Coral Gables Publix reported the man behind her in the checkout line had horns.’ The woman’s face filled the inset screen hovering beside the anchorman’s head. ‘He had gray skin and a lot of silver earrings and horns. Horns!’ The woman made looping motions at the sides of her head. ‘And it’s not even Halloween yet!’

A shadeux fae picking up eggs and milk was the least of that woman’s worries. What would the public do when Halloween had come and gone but the monsters still remained? The Samhain holiday was less than two weeks away.

The camera switched its focus back to the anchorman. ‘More and more reports have been coming in from all over New Florida about strange sightings just like this one. If you’ve seen something unusual in your area, give our tip hotline a call at—’

She changed the channel to another local news station. ‘In a press release today, Mayor Diaz-White announced she will be forming a task force to investigate what can only be described as the paranormal happenings taking place in the city, although the mayor claims every incident can be explained.’

‘Screen off.’ The holographic image vanished. Chrysabelle had seen enough. Paradise City was only beginning to wake up to the new reality the whole world now faced with the covenant gone. As the days ticked by, the inevitable clash between light and dark forces came nearer, escalating until there would be no denying what was happening. No matter what the mayor told the people.

Which brought her thoughts back to Tatiana. Did a more evil, conniving, ambitious vampire exist? Chrysabelle doubted it. Tatiana had killed Maris as part of the ritual that tore the covenant away, but Chrysabelle had prevented Tatiana from keeping the ring of sorrows. How long before Tatiana made another attempt to claim the ring? It was safely tucked away, but Chrysabelle had considered destroying it several times in the past weeks. If only she could be sure enough of its power to determine that destroying it wouldn’t cause further damage to the world around them.

The swirls of gold tattooed on her skin glittered softly as her thumb rubbed the band on her ring finger. One click released a tiny blade, sharp enough to pierce a vein and drain away the excess blood in her system. Those born into the comarré life, raised to fulfill the needs of the vampires who purchased their blood rights and heavily tattooed with the special gold signum that purified their blood, produced the substance in rich, pure, powerful abundance. Without a patron, the excess blood would sicken her, poisoning her system until she went mad. She’d been on the verge once and that was enough.

She held her wrist up to the light. The veins pulsed thick and blue. The time to drain the excess was upon her. Maybe that was why Mal had been on her mind so much these last few days.

Maris had told her that eventually her system would adjust, but Chrysabelle had twice drained her blood to feed Mal and twice he’d kissed her in return, giving her the infusion of vampire power that was her due. Those kisses had kept her body producing. Kept her thinking of him.

She should drain the blood into the sink, wash it and her thoughts of Mal away. She sighed softly and wished he were that easy to forget. He wasn’t. Not even close. She stood and headed for the kitchen. What was one more container in the refrigerator among the others? Her blood was valuable. Whether Mal wanted it or not.

***

Corvinestri, Romania, 2067

 ‘This is going to hurt, my sweet. Are you sure you can withstand the pain?’

‘You’ve already told me it will hurt. And I’ve already told you I can withstand more pain than you can dream of.’ Tatiana glared at Zafir. ‘Do you think it was pleasant when that comarré whore sliced my hand off in the first place?’ If he knew what she’d endured while in the clutches of the Castus Sanguis, but of course, he had no idea.

Laa, my darling, of course not.’ His lush, black lashes fluttered over his olive cheeks. ‘I only wished to prepare you.’

‘Just do it. I will be fine.’ She lay back on Zafir’s lab table, her head propped on his folded coat, her remaining hand flat on her chest covering her locket where it lay beneath her blouse. Zafir and his brother, Nasir, were both exceptionally beautiful in a dark, Arabian kind of way, but according to Lord Ivan, who’d sent her here, Zafir was the most circumspect of the talented pair. And in this matter, discretion was of the utmost importance. Few knew her hand had been severed, and she intended to keep it that way. The servants who found out had been dispatched, save Octavian, the head of her household staff. She would not, under any circumstance, be made to appear incapable or disadvantaged. She intended to have Lord Ivan’s position of Dominus one day, and nothing, nothing would prevent that. Soon she would renew her standing in the eyes of the Castus. Show them she was worthy once again. Reclaim the ring of sorrows – and the power it held – that was rightfully hers.

This new hand was the first step toward that goal.

Na’am, you will do very well, won’t you?’ Zafir laughed softly.

She wanted to slap his face until that patronizing tone became a cry for mercy. He was no Mikkel, that much was certain. Mikkel’s talents in the black arts had been exceptional. Of course, those talents hadn’t kept her late paramour alive either. And if Zafir’s talents in alchemy were as powerful as he claimed, he might be better than Mikkel. If he failed to do as he’d promised, then perhaps she’d give the brother a chance. At the very least, Zafir was Mikkel’s equal in bed.

Life had very quickly taught her that pleasure and power were the only real rewards for pain. Her sweet Sofia’s face flashed before her eyes, something that had been happening more and more since her confrontation with Malkolm. Seeing him had stirred up the past. She tightened her grip on the locket, the silk of her blouse cool against her fingers. ‘Get on with it.’

‘As you wish.’ Zafir moved the meticulously crafted platinum prosthetic into place at the end of her right wrist. The gleaming hand lay open, the lines and creases on the palm mirror images of those on her left because it had been modeled after that hand. The hot metal had been quenched in her blood to further seal the magic.

He painted the stump of her wrist with a foul-smelling paste that burned slightly, then he adjusted the prosthetic so that her flesh touched metal. The metal was cool, but her body was warm because she’d fed from her comar before coming to give herself strength.

Using a glass spoon, Zafir scooped pale silver-white dust from a squat glass jar and sprinkled the joined area with the powder.

The pain struck in a searing wave.

A cry ripped from Tatiana’s throat and she jerked away from the agony, but Zafir grabbed her forearm and kept it pressed against the metal.

‘You mustn’t move, my love.’

Fire traveled the length of her arm and bit into her shoulder. Lava flowed through her joints, melting her bones with blinding pain. She clenched her jaw to keep from vomiting.

She could endure this. She’d endured the Castus Sanguis’s punishing use of her mind and body, and would again if that’s what it took to regain their favor. All that mattered was the unholy power they wielded and that a portion of it become hers. Pain brings clarity.

Flames licked her skin. Wisps of smoke wafted from the joint of flesh and metal. Blisters rose, filling with fluid. Her fangs pierced her lower lip, and the taste of copper washed her mouth.

‘Almost there,’ Zafir encouraged. ‘That’s my girl.’

Killing him might ease the pain. She was no one’s gir—

Daggers dug into the stump of her wrist, grinding through the muscle and burrowing into her bone. She cursed loudly. Then cursed again. And just as she was about to shove the fingers of her good hand into his chest and rip out his heart, the pain subsided to a dull throb.

She yanked her arm away from him. ‘Do you have any idea how badly that—’

He laughed triumphantly and pointed. ‘How do you like it?’

She followed the line of his gaze to the platinum fist at the end of her arm. She willed the hand to open. It did. She wiggled the fingers – her fingers – and the bright platinum digits waved back. She leaped off the table, pain forgotten.

‘Oh, Zafir, this is brilliant.’ She stared at her reflection in the palm of her hand. Pain always seemed to make her more beautiful.

He grinned at her words, showing off his fangs. Something about the contrast of those long, white teeth against his dark skin gave her a perverse thrill. He was a handsome devil. Devil being the operative word. ‘There’s more.’

‘Such as?’

He threaded his arms around her waist, turning her back against his chest. He nuzzled his mouth, cool from not feeding, into the curve of her neck. ‘Think sword, my lush wonder.’

‘Sword?’

‘Yes. A wicked scimitar or a deadly katana. Whatever you like.’ His fangs scraped her skin, and she shivered with pleasure.

‘Very well.’ She thought of the hefty two-handed blade her former husband, Malkolm, had once wielded in his mortal occupation as a headsman. She’d always admired that weapon. She should have used it on him. She sniffed. Now was not the time for burdens of the past. She focused on the image in her head.

Tingles of sensation shot up her arm from her new hand. She held it up toward the light. What was happening? The tingles became pressure and her fingers fused together.

She inhaled, the bitter air of Zafir’s laboratory clogging her throat. ‘What the—’

‘Just wait,’ he urged. His grip tightened, as if he thought she might bolt. Or turn on him. Wise boy.

Her fingers melted into a solid shaft as they elongated into a polished knife, then longer still until the blade replicated the image in her head.

‘Unholy hell.’ She went utterly still, very aware that her mouth hung open.

He laughed softly, sending vibrations through her skin. ‘You should not doubt me in the future, my sweet.’ His hands slipped lower, only to climb again once he’d breached the hem of her blouse.

She pushed him away with her elbows and broke out of the embrace, all without taking her gaze off the sword extending out from her wrist. She slashed it through the air. Perfectly weighted. ‘Bloody amazing. How is this even possible?’

‘Does a magician tell his secrets?’ He shrugged. ‘Of course, such magic comes with a price.’

The blade glinted like sunlit water, but she managed to pull her gaze away to stare him down. ‘We discussed no price.’

He whispered something in Arabic as he pulled her into his arms again. The sword shrank back to a hand.

She arched a brow, warm tendrils of suspicion growing along her spine. ‘How did you do that?’

‘I am not a fool.’ He kissed her cheekbone.

Neither was she. The fact that he’d built in his own controls angered her beyond the point of reason. Red tinged her vision. Had Lord Ivan put him up to this? If so, they both deserved to die. No one dictated what she did. No one. ‘What is this price you speak of?’

‘The only payment I require is more of what you’ve already been paying me.’ He cupped her body against the hard lines of his own. ‘If Nasir could see me now, he would be very jealous indeed.’

Barely restraining the urge to tear his throat out, she tipped her head back to let him kiss her neck. How dare he think to control her? ‘Does Nasir know what you’ve done for me?’ She’d insisted their relationship remain a secret, telling him she wasn’t ready to be scrutinized by the rest of the nobility until her hand was restored.

‘Mmm,’ he hummed against her skin. ‘And give him a chance to tell me how I should be doing things? Laa, my darling, I’ve kept you for myself.’

‘Good.’ In that much, Lord Ivan’s assessment had been correct. Her metal fingers stroked Zafir’s chest, drawing circles over his unbeating heart. ‘There’s something you should know about me.’

‘What’s that?’ His hands strayed to her rib cage.

She straightened. ‘No one controls me.’ She’d had no control of her life as a mortal and had fought too hard to wrest control of her vampire life to have it taken from her now, no matter how small a thing it might be.

His face stayed buried against her neck, his mouth hungry on her skin. ‘Of course not, my precious.’

‘Remove the controls you built in.’

He laughed. ‘You think I’m a fool? To give you such power freely? No.’

She threaded her fingers into his hair and jerked his head back to look him in the face. ‘Bad decision.’ Her metal fingers stilled, pressing against his chest. She whispered, ‘Sword.’

Zafir’s eyes shot wide as the blade pierced him. He jerked once, then disintegrated into a small heap of ash.

Tatiana turned the sword back into a hand and shook her head at the sooty pile on the laboratory floor. ‘Let’s hope your brother’s not as stupid.’ She liked intelligence in her male companions, but not so much that their ambitions ran roughshod over hers. She needed devotion, not competition.

She tipped over a few Bunsen burners, staying long enough to be certain the blaze would devour all traces of her actions. Vampire law stated that killing another noble was an unforgivable crime. She’d come to believe the only real crime was getting caught.

She slipped out the door and pulled up the hood of her cloak, staying in the shadows of the small overhang. This part of Corvinestri was deserted as far as she could see down the cobblestone streets. Zafir was not a wealthy, high-ranking member of the St. Germain family, and his neighborhood reflected that, something that suited her purposes rather well.

Ensconced in a dark alley, she waited a little while longer until tongues of flames licked the windows. Lights came on in the house next door. Perhaps the stone wall adjoining the two buildings had already grown hot. From her hiding place, she scattered into a cloud of black wasps and resettled herself with great dramatic flair on Zafir’s doorstep.

She made a show of knocking. ‘Zafir? Zafir, are you home?’

After a moment of restless waiting, she banged on the door. ‘Zafir, you must get out!’

Neighbors began to trickle out of their homes.

Satisfied with the amount of witnesses, Tatiana tipped her head back and yelled, ‘Fire!’

***

‘I didn’t get anything. You?’ Mal leaned against the rusted railing of the old freighter. His gaze followed the silver ribbon of moonlight on the water, beyond the other abandoned freighters crowding the decaying port, past the expensive electric lights twinkling on the curve of shoreline where the wealthy mortals lived, and out into the great black sea. Four miles away floated artificial islands sewn with crops of wind generators. The low moan of the turbines hummed just beneath the ever-present drone of the voices in his head.

‘N-nothing,’ Doc answered, clearing his throat. His black-asmidnight skin wore the sweaty sheen of a creature struggling against his true nature. And losing. ‘Not a drop. The butcher on Hibiscus won’t sell to me anymore. Says there’s too many freaks running around and he doesn’t want to get a rep.’

‘Bloody hell.’ Mal’s body clenched with hunger. The voices amped up their whining. Feed, kill, drink. He glanced at the leopard shifter. Full moons were difficult on the cursed varcolai. Doc shouldn’t have gone for blood, but he’d wanted to run the streets, see if a good sweat could help him shake the powerful urges pulling at his body tonight. By the looks of him, the run had done him as little good as Mal had said it would.

‘Been two weeks,’ Doc said. He shifted restlessly, his hands trembling like a man fighting withdrawal.

‘Seems longer.’ Much longer, Mal thought, since he’d had human blood. Comarré blood. Should’ve drunk her dry when you had the chance. And now even pig’s blood was getting scarce.

‘You could drink what’s in the fridge.’

‘No.’ He couldn’t bring himself to drink the blood Chrysabelle had sent, but he couldn’t bring himself to dump it either.

‘Maybe time to see Dominic. Get some blood from his fake comarré. It’s gonna be spendy, but . . . ’ Doc shrugged, his eyes brassy green-gold, pupils wide open even in the bright moonlight.

‘Not yet.’ Mal was used to going without. Weakling. Dominic was a last resort. Very last. Too many strings. Too much money. Right now, Mal just needed to get Doc through the next few nights. Not being able to shift into his true form made Doc’s life hard, except on full-moon nights. Then it was hell.

Mal knew all about that. Hell was his permanent address. Especially since Chrysabelle had failed to fulfill her part of their deal. Lying, cheating blood whore. He ground his back teeth together, wishing he could crush the voices as easily.

He’d promised to help her rescue her kidnapped aunt, and she’d promised to get him to the comarré historian to find out how to remove his curse. Maybe in Chrysabelle’s mind, a dead aunt negated the deal. He couldn’t blame her for being upset, especially since Maris had revealed she was actually Chrysabelle’s mother, but Maris’s death wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t enough reason for Chrysabelle to shut him out.

Part of him wished he’d never tasted Chrysabelle’s blood. His fangs punched through his gums. A very small part. He nodded at Doc. ‘You going to be okay?’

Doc shivered despite the near eighty-degree temp. ‘Yeah, bro, I’m tight. I just wish—’ A tremor rocked his body.

‘I know.’

Doc raised a brow. ‘You miss her?’

‘Yes.’ Mal shifted his gaze back to the ocean. Heat lightning shattered the horizon’s edges. Doc’s mention of Fiona didn’t surprise him. The pair were nuts for each other, despite her being a ghost. She was the last human Mal had killed and, of all the voices in his head, the only one to manifest as a ghost. After the many years she’d been stuck to him, Mal had come to tolerate Fi. More than that really. He’d come to appreciate her company. She alone could temper the beast that rose within him and rein in the voices when they took control.

Unfortunately, she’d been another casualty of their trip to rescue Maris, and Doc had taken her death extremely hard. He still believed she would return, but the space on Mal’s left arm where her name had once been written remained bare.

‘You should go see her,’ Doc said. ‘Work things out. You might as well drink the blood she sent. You need it—’

Mal’s head whipped back around. ‘I meant Fi.’

Doc snorted, scrubbing at his goatee. ‘Sure you did.’ A halo of sweat crowned his shaved head, and his canines jutted past his lip like two toothy daggers.

‘You look like hell.’

‘I feel like hell.’ Doc closed his eyes, visibly steeling himself. The fangs disappeared and the claws retracted, only to reappear a few seconds later. His half-form wasn’t going to cut it tonight. The need to change was too strong due to the full moon’s power.

‘Stop fighting it. Get below and shift. I’ll make sure you don’t run.’

Doc’s curse meant the only full form he could shift into was a common house cat, and in that state he was highly susceptible to larger predators. Like dogs. And Mal didn’t want to nurse him through another incident like the last one.

Doc nodded and headed for the hatch.

Mal turned back to the railing and wiped a hand over his face. The sharp angles and hard contours of his true image only served as a reminder of the monster that lived inside him. The monster that needed to be fed. Soon. Kill, drink, eat, blood.

The scent of jasmine and spice rose up behind him. He spun around. ‘What are you doing here?’

Katsumi bowed slightly from the hips, palms together before her. ‘Lovely to see you, too, Malkolm.’

‘If you’re here, you want something. What is it?’ He was too hungry to deal with anyone, especially this fringe. The former wife of a Yakuza crime boss, Katsumi had the missing pinkie and full-body tattoos to prove it. She’d been turned in the 1980s, and her cutthroat style had earned her a serious reputation. If Katsumi had been nobility, she could have given Tatiana some healthy competition for vilest vampiress of the century. Now she worked at Dominic’s nightclub, Seven. In what capacity, Mal had yet to fully determine.

Katsumi gave a little half smile. ‘So cranky when you’re underfed. Which seems to be all the time. Right to it, then. I’ve come to offer you blood.’

His muscles tightened painfully and the beast inside tugged at the bonds keeping it prisoner. Take, drink, kill. ‘Go on.’

Her almond eyes twinkled with devious intent. ‘I’ll provide you with all the blood you need. And by the looks of you, that’s not a small amount. On one condition.’

‘Just one? You’re getting soft in your old age.’

She laughed and adjusted the cuffs of her high-necked dress. Katsumi’s ink bodysuit was widely known but rarely seen. ‘Is that what’s happened to you, my dear noble friend?’

‘We’ve never been friends. What’s the condition?’

She slunk closer. Her perfume had none of the sweetness of Chrysabelle’s. ‘I want you to fight for me again—’

‘No.’ Under no circumstances would he enter the Pits again. Yes. Fight, kill.

‘No one has to know.’ She lifted her hand toward his face, then obviously thought better of it. ‘You can wear a mask, if you like.’

‘A mask isn’t going to hide what I become.’ Monster, killer, murderer.

The light in her eyes brightened. ‘Then own it. Use it. You’ve had more human blood in the last few weeks than you’ve had in the past fifty years. You’re stronger than ever. You could win now, win your way back to a place where you can afford to buy whatever blood you need.’

‘You mean back to a place where you can profit off me again.’ Back in the day, Katsumi had made mountains of yen from Mal’s fights. So much that she’d shared some of her take with him. Just enough to buy blood from the butcher. Just enough to keep him in fighting shape. But with Fi inside him, keeping the beast from rising, he’d lost most fights. Which was fine. No one needed to see that part of him. Losing had done nothing to diminish the crowd’s desire to gawk at the marked anathema.

‘Not again. Not ever. Besides, I don’t need your money.’ There was plenty of that left over from the sale of the diamond Chrysabelle had given to Doc. Not that Mal had touched that money for anything yet. Or wanted to.

Greed soured her smile. ‘But there is something you need. What the comarré promised but didn’t deliver.’

‘How do you know about that?’

‘Dominic doesn’t keep many secrets from me.’ She cocked her head to one side like a hawk staring down a fat, dumb rabbit. ‘So would you fight for the chance to speak to the comarré historian? To finally find a way to end your curse?’

Ice burrowed into his spine and froze him in place. ‘You can’t offer that.’

‘Oh, Malkolm-san, but I can. Dominic knows how to access the one you seek. Fight for me and I will persuade him to show you the way.’

‘You can’t promise that.’ She lies, lies, lies . . .

‘I can and I do.’

‘You give your word?’ Katsumi’s word wasn’t worth squat, but a chance was a chance.

‘Yes.’

Fool. He hated himself. So what was new? ‘When?’

‘Tomorrow night at Seven.’

‘I’m not waiting in the holding cells.’ Never again.

‘And spoil the surprise of your presence? I wouldn’t dream of it.’ She blinked like she was shocked he’d even suggest it. ‘You’ll have a room of your own.’

He still didn’t trust her. ‘How do I know you won’t go back on your word?’

‘I’ve broken only one promise in my life.’ She held up the hand with the missing pinkie. ‘Once was enough.’